Injuries are Killer by Gabe Kahn
A few weeks ago I was salivating over the possibility of the Conference Finals matchups falling out like this: Spurs v. Suns and Heat v. Pistons. Now that those series are all over, here's what I have to say about them: eh...
Both series just left you wanting something more and it's all because of injuries.
For the Western Conference I was looking forward to watching the ultimate battle between half court and running basketball, offense vs. defense, the superstar against the team. Unfortunately, Joe Johnson's nasty eye injury cost us (and Phoenix) the definitive opportunity to see what works best in the NBA. Now JJ is a good player, but is he that good? No. However, he is essential to the Suns game because of his outside shooting and his playmaking ability. More importantly, Johnson's absence underlined the Suns lack of depth, which tag-teams with their transparent defense as Phoenix's biggest weakness.
Was Phoenix going to beat San Antonio with a healthy Johnson playing from the start? Probably not, especially given how the Spurs proved that, even if defense is their calling card, when needed they can put up points as well as anyone in the league. But the series would have gone more than five games and I feel cheated that the basketball gods decided to leave this argument open ended for another season when the Suns seemed worthy of taking on a low post powerhouse like the Spurs.
Similarly, an answer to my questions was also thwarted by injuries in the East. Since the end of last season, experts (and I) have been asking if the Pistons victory in the Finals was a fluke produced by the Lakers internal strife (as well as an injury to Karl Malone - you just can't get away from them) or if the best the best team did, indeed win. The 03-04 Finals first raised the question, does the better T-E-A-M win out over talent in the NBA? Until last season, there was never any reason to doubt that the team with the best player always wins. With Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade and little else other than good role players in Miami facing a comparable, if not identical Detroit team from a year ago, the answer seemed close at hand.
Although I now believe I know the answer, the injuries to both Shaq and Wade have clouded this mystery as well. O'Neal injured his thigh on April 10th and was not close to being the force we're used to seeing him as since that day. Frankly, he looked like a good center, not a guy who deserves triple teams and the undivided attention of the entire defense when he's on the floor. Losing Wade to a rib injury at the end of game five turned out to be catastrophic for Miami, because with half a Shaq and a less than stellar Wade, what else do they have?
The thing that really gets to me is that, starting in a few months, people are going to start using this series as proof of this whole TEAM thing being better than two superior talents. You know how it works. Right now, we all have a limping Shaq and a suddenly human Wade directly behind us in the rear-view mirror. We witnessed Wade and O'Neal, ailing and all, take apart Detroit in game 5, poised to lead Miami to their first ever finals appearance. Very shortly, though, that memory will start to fade, as commentators express their undying praise and admiration for Detroit's resilience and determination leading them to a repeat appearance in the finals in an effort to hike up ratings. Soon, fans too will forget that the Pistons were having their lunch handed to them with calls for Coach Larry Brown to resign during the series, just for the sake of removing a distraction. By the middle of next season, will anyone even remember that Shaq had a thigh injury or that Wade missed a game of the series?
Now, let's not forget that the Pistons are, indeed, a very good team and they deserve all the credit that comes to them for taking out LA last year. They play unselfishly, or as Brown would say, “the right way,” employing said team concept and turning it into an NBA championship. If they can get to Tim Duncan and the rest of the Spurs, they'll prove, despite what happened against Miami, that they are the best in the league and deserve to be champions.
But I don't see that happening. The Spurs have a pretty impressive TEAM, themselves, and no one can deny that they're more talented than Detroit with Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Put those guys together with role players-extraordinaire in Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, Nazr Mohammed, Brent Barry and the rest of the crew assembled by RC Buford, add in home court advantage, and suddenly you’re looking at the Spurs third championship trophy, probably in six games.
Chances are, the finals will be fun to watch and will answer many of our questions. It's just too bad that injuries had to stop us from putting some of our other questions to bed for good.